Thursday, December 24, 2015

Peace, Joy, and the Christmas Bird Count

This lovely male house finch, high in a tree above Sibley Swale, was beautifully illuminated during the Christmas Bird Count last Saturday. The morning was cold, cold -- with not much wind, but enough so that walking west made the eyes water and the face go numb.

During the count it helps to put a highly visible notice on one's vehicle explaining why you're driving slowly and peering through binoculars at people's houses (but really, at their bird feeders, trees, shrubs, and lawns).

It was good to once again do the count in the company of Dan Kahl, the caretaker and naturalist at Mount Olivet Retreat Center in Farmington. My husband Dave joined us for part of the morning as well, but unfortunately his one good eye was bothering him and he wasn't seeing well, so he bowed out about halfway through.

Our territory, as usual, covered a rural area east and south of Northfield as well as much of the south side of Northfield itself. We drove most of it but walked a bit of Sibley Swale, the Sibley School nature area, and the marshy area just west of the south end of Archibald Street.

This was our count for the morning -- 20 species, which is two more than last year:
  • 60 house sparrows
  • 40 European starlings
  • 32 American crows
  • 26 dark-eyed juncos
  • 14 blue jays
  • 14 mallards
  • 12 American goldfinches
  • 9 house finches
  • 7 pine siskins
  • 6 downy woodpeckers
  • 5 black-capped chickadees
  • 5 rock pigeons
  • 3 white-breasted nuthatches
  • 2 American tree sparrows
  • 2 mourning doves
  • 2 northern cardinals
  • 1 Canada goose
  • 1 red-tailed hawk
  • 1 ring-necked pheasant
  • 1 red-bellied woodpecker

Gene Bauer always does a meticulous job of organizing our regional Count, and it's so much fun to breakfast with all the other CBCers at Gene and Susan's house and return to report in and warm up over soup at lunchtime. Many thanks to them, as always.

To all: Wishing you peace and joy in this season of darkness and lights, and the restorative and transformative blessings of nature in the year ahead.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ever Seen the Top of a Red-bellied Woodpecker's Head?

The red-bellied woodpecker is always one of my favorite visitors -- so large and beautifully patterned. The dark eye in the pale, unstreaked cheek gives the bird a fresh-faced, approachable look.

This female comes to our feeders quite often these days.

The picture below shows how these birds use their tails for support, bracing themselves against a tree trunk or a bird feeder.

And here, below, is an unusual view -- at least for me. I've included this shot although it's otherwise not a good photograph, because it's interesting to see so clearly the straight line where the red cap meets gray in the female. The male's red cap extends all the way to the beak.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Ice Forming on a Frigid Morning

Saturday was the Christmas Bird Count in our area, and wouldn't you know it would be the most frigid morning we've had this whole mild December -- only about 10 F. as we set out around 8:00. One bright side was seeing some fascinating ice formations along the creek near Dennison, where we always stop in hopes of seeing birds, but rarely see any even when there is open water. This time we saw a couple of goldfinches. 

Click on any of the photos below to see them larger. They were taken from quite some distance so they are not all crystal clear, but you can see what a variety of patterns and structures were to be seen.

I haven't studied ice formation much, but there is some basic background in this Britannica article

The only ducks we saw all morning were a group of 14 mallards splashing vigorously in a small area of open water in the middle of the pond south of Superior Drive. Man, that looks cold.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Monarch on the Joe-Pye Weed

It was a sweet sight to observe a monarch butterfly on some pollinator-friendly, native Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium) in our garden today -- the first confirmed monarch sighting here in several years. We have quite a few milkweed plants, although they are not growing where there is enough sun for them to produce flowers. These photos were taken through my living room window on an overcast day.

Monday, May 25, 2015

From the Archives: Dandelion Clocks Aglow

This post was originally published June 6, 2008, when my son was eight. I've been noticing again how dandelion seedheads catch the light and have a magical appeal -- if you're open to it!

On a recent evening walk, I found the glow of dandelion seedheads, or "clocks," illuminated by the setting sun, quite magical. My son, like many children, loves to blow the dandelion clocks. Adults, on the other hand, tend to consider dandelion clocks an eyesore and shudder at the thought of those countless seed parachutes wafting over their lawns. I remember my mother teaching my brother and me to "tell the time" by counting the blows it took until the seeds were all blown away. There is still something compelling about those weightless, silky orbs, if we take the time to notice.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bluebird in Soft Focus on a Gray Day

I sometimes forget what a difference good light makes to the clarity of a photo. But the flip side of that can be the tender, even painterly, softness to shots taken on an overcast day. Here is a male bluebird perching on a marker post in the Upper Arb at Carleton College, with a stand of leafing-out trees some distance behind.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

2015 Bluebird Trail

Dave and I are a month or so into our fourth year of monitoring blueboxes in the Northfield area. This year, in addition to the two trails we've been covering in previous years (one currently with 12 boxes along rural roads south of Northfield and the other with five boxes near Randolph), we've taken on (at least for this year) another existing trail in the Carleton Arboretum that has 9 pairs of boxes over about a two-mile walking trail.

This trail uses a different type of nestbox than we're used to -- the modified Gilwood rather than the Gilbertson PVC style -- so that's been a learning curve. (See a comparison of box styles.) Both are mounted on conduit poles for good predator deterrence. (Please don't mount bluebird boxes on wooden fence posts and other areas where cats, raccoons, snakes and other predators can easily access a buffet of eggs and nestlings. If you have older-style boxes mounted in that way, you'd be doing a good deed by replacing them with newer pole-mounted boxes. If you're in our area and would like help replacing older boxes, message me and I'll be glad to help make that happen.)

The Gilwood has a front-opening door which is probably less alarming to a bird that happens to be sitting on eggs during a box check than the action of detaching the PVC box from its roof as you do to check inside the Gilbertson boxes. However, Dave and I aren't very tall, and even after lowering most of the boxes we find we need to use a small mirror on a wand (available at auto supply stores) to see the contents of the nests. Photography of box contents would be difficult indeed.

As of this week we have quite a few bluebird eggs, more nests that don't have eggs yet, and also much nesting activity by tree swallows. This morning as we walked the new trail I was able to get some nice photos of both bluebirds and tree swallows -- sometimes in the same shot.

Click any of the photos to see them larger.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sandhill Cranes, Platte River - with video

For millions of years, cranes have migrated through what is now south central Nebraska on their way to breeding grounds in the north. I was honored to witness the spectacle of sandhill cranes gathering on the Platte River in late March. At sunset the cranes fly in by the thousands from the fields to roost on the river overnight; at dawn they rise in groups both small and large, and disperse to glean grain from the late-winter fields. Some half a million cranes pass through there, in the vicinity of Kearney, Nebraska, from late February to early April each year. The sight and primordial sound of hundreds or thousands of cranes, with the backdrop of some of the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises I have ever seen, will long stay with me. So will the moment when a clamorous group we were watching, at some signal undetectable by us, went completely silent. A few breathless moments passed -- and then they lifted en masse into the sky.

Turn up the volume on the video to hear the cranes.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Why I'm a Birder: Loving the Places They've Brought Me

I've finally been reading The Big Year by Mark Obmascik. It's the story of three obsessive birders and their race to see the most species in North America in a year. The book inspired the Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson film of the same name.

Early in the book the author describes one of the competitors, wealthy businessman Al Levantin, who kicks off his Big Year spotting mountain birds from skis in his home base of Aspen:
"That was the thing with Levantin: he loved the birds, but he really loved the places they brought him. When you spend your career in the confines of a gray suit, the pipits at dawn above timberline are even more wondrous. He lived to be in the field."
That rang so true for me that it practically leapt from the page, shimmering in gold.
~~~ He loved the birds, but he really loved the places they brought him. ~~~
I don't mean exotic new locations, though maybe someday birding will take me to some of those. I mean that my growing interest in birds has gently led me into the natural world, as well as into places that might also be described as states of mind: the wondrousness of the pipits at dawn.

What are some places birding has taken me?

Woods. Prairie. Trails. Ponds. Riverbanks.

The frozen Missisippi in winter, looking for bald eagles.
The first ice-free pond that hosts migrating ducks in the spring.
The Christmas Bird Count, spent driving slowly along rural roads looking for every single bird we can spot.

Barely leafed-out woods in May, looking and listening for warblers.
A driving trip up the Northern California coast: oystercatchers and thousands of marbled godwits.
A hilly hike in a Bay Area wilderness area, in search of golden eagles.
Sewage ponds. Yes, sewage ponds.

Good hiking shoes. Caps that shade the eyes. Quick-dry trousers with zip-off legs.
The idea that it's okay to invest modestly in some gear for what makes you happy.
Tentative experimentation with snowshoes.

A better camera.
A huge proportion of this blog.

The Carleton Arboretum and River Bend Nature Center in all seasons.
The Minnesota Master Naturalist Class.
The Pothole and Prairie Birding Festival in North Dakota.
Plans to witness the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska this spring.

Listening. Looking. Scanning the sky or a body of water. Intently gazing into trees or shrubs.
And, at last, a new comfort being alone in a natural area. A sense of freedom and empowerment.


Let me say more about that last thing, because it's one of the biggies.

I lived mostly in large cities until moving to Northfield almost 25 years ago. I knew people who went hiking and backpacking and camping, and in fact my high school was quite into such things, but I didn't ever get much experience with those activities outside of organized groups, and though I admired people who did them, they didn't really call to me.

Also, in the city or outside it, I was always aware that danger might lurk in the bushes. And, terribly, there were reports of murdered hikers reinforcing the point.

Even when I got to this safe small town, my city instincts followed me. Maybe I didn't still carry my keys pointing out between my fingers when walking to my car at night, but a woman (especially a small, not particularly athletic woman) alone in a park or the woods or on a hiking trail was vulnerable. You didn't put yourself into that situation. At least, that's how it continued to feel to me.

Until I had enough reason to want to. And that's what the birds gave me.

It's taken me a long time to realize what I'd missed -- that sense of freedom and empowerment that I mentioned above -- and birding is what finally got me there. But it's not all about the birds anymore. Being out in the natural world has become intrinsically rewarding in a way it really wasn't for me, before.

I still don't feel called to feats of solo distance hiking like Cheryl Strayed, or my sister-in-law Bethany who hiked the John Muir Trail solo in 2012. One of the things I've always said I like about birding is it gets you outside without having to be too strenuous about it.

But an early morning hour or so wandering by myself in the Arb, River Bend, or other natural areas nearby, entirely at my own pace, choosing my route, camera and binoculars ready for whatever I may discover ... bliss.

Thank you, birds.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Adorable Downy

Yesterday Dave and I stopped by Big Woods State Park, where there was a lot of woodpecker and nuthatch action in the trees surrounding the park office. I was charmed by this little female downy woodpecker working her way around the trunk of one of the trees, only a few feet from where we were standing. Isn't she pretty?

While we were there, we also saw a juvenile red-headed woodpecker, patchily transitioning to its full red head, which it should have by breeding season this year. I didn't get a good photo, but we were pleased to see young of this increasingly rare woodpecker. Big Woods State Park is one of the most reliable places to spot them.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Dawn Juncos Sitting on the Ground

This morning I looked out of the window next to the front door before going out to get our newspaper, and saw three dark-eyed juncos on our front walk where I had scattered some seed the day before. The sun was just coming up, and I was a little surprised to see the juncos there before full light. I was even more surprised when I realized they were not eating, but just sitting still. 

I don't think I've ever seen them just sitting on the ground like that before. The temperature was about 0 F, which is warmer than it has been for the past several mornings, but still exceedingly cold. The first two photos here were taken through the window and reflect the pinkish light of the rising sun.

Because I didn't want to disturb them if they were conserving energy by hunkering down, I waited a few minutes until seeing that two of them had left and the one remaining was eating. I then stepped out to get the paper and turned toward the pink eastern sky. It was a beautiful sunrise.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year 2015

This is a downy woodpecker, taken last winter. I like the light and the seemingly heart-shaped red spot.

First birds of 2015 have included a red-bellied woodpecker and a chickadee singing its sweet spring song: Fee-bee, fee-bee. The heart lifts! The darkest days of the winter are behind us.

Happy new year to one and all.